AEC Tech News (#301)

26 Jul, 2011 By: Cadalyst Staff

Mobile Workstations for CAD Users

Find out what you need in a mobile workstation.

Editor's note: Through a sponsorship by Dell and Intel, Cadalyst editors bring you this feature, part of a special series of articles designed to educate CAD users and managers about the benefits and realities of professional workstations. Find even more information at the CADspeed blog.

By Tony DeYoung

While the simplest advice for choosing a mobile workstation is "buy the most powerful one you can afford," CAD users have special needs. The size and complexity of CAD applications and data change this advice to "decide what you mean by mobile and then choose the specs that offer you at least 80% of the functionality you ideally want."

The 17-inch Desktop Replacements

Mobile workstations with 17-inch screens are an amazing feat of miniaturization. When settled on a desk and plugged into a power outlet, they provide almost the full CPU and GPU performance of a full-sized workstation, with support for all peripherals — all in a self-contained package.

That said, they are not mobile devices that you can carry around and use on the go. To use them you need to settle in and nest.

Dual vs Quad Core: If you are rendering (e.g., SolidWorks RealView), go with a Quad Core. RealView takes advantage of all cores. If you are not rendering, I would probably look for dual core models because they typically have higher clock speeds. Clock speed matters more than cores for applications that are not multithreaded, and you get much better heat dissipation, which is a real issue in a small package.

RAM: Minimum 6 GB. Most 17-inch laptops have 4 DIMM slots, so you can buy less expensive DIMMs to get to the RAM you need (e.g. 4 X 2 GB DIMM as opposed to 2 X 4GB DIMM).

Workstation graphics card: This is mandatory and fortunately standard in most CAD-capable workstations. Just a caution — don't select the low end default graphics card. You will come to regret it.

Built-in display: If you can afford it, go with the 1920 x 1200 screen. It is big enough to make that resolution viable (no tiny, tiny text) and screen real estate is always useful when you can't hook up to your external displays. If color accuracy and no grayscale-banding-when-rendering matters to you, go with the pricer Dell RGBLED or HP DreamColor display. The standard WLED/LED displays are fine for Office tasks as well as non-shaded CAD or architectural drawings (but verify they are at least 8-bit and not 6-bit displays).

Working on the Go? The 15-inch Mobile Workstation

15-inch devices are small enough to actually be considered mobile (as in you can use them anywhere, anytime). With some intelligent buying choices, you can get a lot of CAD goodness in a small, portable form factor. Pretty much everything I mentioned for 17- inch laptops applies to 15-inch mobile workstations, but let me add on a bit.

CPU: If it is an option with the laptop vendor, stick with dual core at higher clock speed, then quad core at lower clock speed. This saves battery life and gives you faster performance for non-rendering CAD tasks. Remember, your goal is to be unconstrained by the need for a nearby power outlet. You want a laptop that stays cools and has staying power. 15-inch laptops can go about 75 min when processing CAD under battery power. Not bad, especially when compared to the 17-inch average of just 45 min. (Your mileage will vary depending on the size of models and the amount of time you spend thinking vs. manipulating.)

RAM: Don't skimp on RAM to save cash. Go with the 8 MB option. The default 2 MB or 4 MB offered for some 15-inch models just means you will spend more when you eventually need to upgrade.

Display: For the display, just make sure that it is at least an 8-bit option. Check out a grayscale blended image with your own eyes, before you buy. If you see banding, you want to look for a different display.

Hard Drive: While a regular hard drive is fine for a 17-inch workstation where you are putting down roots when you use the system, with a 15-inch mobile workstation, you need an SSD (solid-state drive) for two reasons:

  1. You are going to move this computer around while it is working. You are supposed to power down your hard drive when you move it, but I never do. I simply move the laptop with the hard drive spinning away. This is a recipe for data loss. However, SSDs can be moved without potentially damaging your data. There are no moving parts to break. So, get a 200+ GB SSD. If you can afford it, spring for extra storage in a 500 GB SSD.
  2. The other big advantage of SSDs over hard drives: typically they are faster and lighter.

Backup: Finally, get some kind of backup option in place, preferably cloud-based so it is offsite. 15-inch laptops are magnets for theft because they are small and relatively lightweight.

What about 14-inch or smaller mobile devices?

For CAD production work, forget anything smaller than 15 inches — you won't have the performance or the real estate you need. But for CAD or architectural presentation work, smaller laptops or tablets can be great options. You can do some incredible demos of your CAD work to clients on an iPad. While you can't really modify anything, you can present your work in a form factor that makes everyone want to interact.

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Tony DeYoung is community manager for, a web site focused on workstation graphics for professional CAD and visualization. Previous to this he was responsible for developing the community and vendor support for OpenGL on, OpenCL on, and Acrobat 3D from Adobe.



Mark Your Calendar: AEC Events


Meridian Systems 2011 User Conference
October 11–13, 2011
Huntington Beach, California
This annual customer event will bring together project-based organizations from several infrastructure-intensive industries to share best practices and customer case studies for Meridian's two primary product offerings, Proliance and Prolog software. Read more »

2011 Autodesk University User Conference and Exhibition
November 29–December 1, 2011
Las Vegas, Nevada
Save the date! Autodesk University will include technical classes and hands-on labs, free Autodesk certification exams, and more. Read more »

2011 National Institute of Building Sciences Annual Meeting
December 5–9, 2011
Washington D.C.
This event will be held in conjunction with the Ecobuild America Conference. The Institute Board of Directors, councils and committees will convene for program meetings and to discuss new ideas for improving the built environment. Read more »

For a complete list of CAD meetings, conferences, training sessions, and more, check out our calendar of events on Are you hosting an event that you would like to include in our calendar? Submit details at least two weeks in advance to


What’s New at


SPECapc Releases New 3ds Max 2011 Benchmark
The long-awaited update is available in an economical personal edition and a comprehensive professional version. Read more »

The Utility of 3D
User Profile: As a multi-discipline designer of water treatment plants, Bob Beatty bridges the gap between 2D and 3D every day. Read more »

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