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 may earn ISV certification, meaning that independent software vendors (such as Autodesk or Dassault Systèmes) have tested that the workstation in question can run their software smoothly.
A workstation may be the right type of computer for you if your work requires you to operate CAD software and time losses due to the computer crashing or running the software slowly would waste money or impair deadline compliance. In the CAD world, engineers and designers typically rely on workstations, although they may use consumer-grade machines instead if they work mostly in 2D CAD. For those professionals who perform rendering, simulation, or frequent 3D modeling tasks, consumer-grade computers are not an option because their capabilities do not provide the necessary support (see the next section for more information).
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, 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 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.
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 a budget you must stick to, and you certainly don’t want to waste money by buying more computer than you need.
Start with recommended specs for the processor, memory, and GPU — the heart of the workstation.
Robert Green's workstation configuration "cheat sheet" gives guidance on RAM and storage as well.
When evaluating processors or central processing units (CPUs), understand the relationship between the speed and number of CPU cores relative to your most-used software.
Whether you prefer to use one or several, flat or curved, glossy or matte, monitors are fundamental to workstation utility. Before you start your monitor search, familiarize yourself with available types, sizes, and aspect ratios.
- Although it's not part of the workstation, a well-designed keyboard, mouse, trackball, or other input device is essential to a productive, comfortable interaction with your machine. Some, such as 3dconnexion's 3D mice and Contour Design's RollerMouse, enable ways of working not possible otherwise. Let your physical needs, work style, and workflow guide your choice of input device.
The tower (or desktop) workstation, the oldest and most common form factor, is a familiar sight in offices. But it’s not a convenient item to travel with, so 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.
If desktop 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.
There are also a few users whose workflow would benefit from a more specialized machine, such as an all-in-one touchscreen workstation such as the Microsoft Surface Studio.
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.
Herrera on Hardware: Navigate the Evolving Choices for CAD Workstation CPUs, Part 2
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Herrera on Hardware: Navigate the Evolving Choices for CAD Workstation CPUs, Part 1
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Herrera on Hardware: The Hidden Danger of Memory Errors in CAD Computing
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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
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