Laptops and CAD

8 Sep, 2009 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager's Toolbox: Can a laptop replace a workstation? For some CAD users on the move, the answer is yes.

Every so often I'll get a question about the feasibility of running CAD on a laptop. For example, I recently received a reader query about the possibility of equipping the more mobile members of the design staff exclusively with laptops or mobile workstations, thus eliminating fixed workstations.

Before I answer, let me clarify the difference between a laptop and a mobile workstation, as there can be some confusion between the two. Laptops are smaller, lighter, and less costly than their workstation brethren, and are generally restricted to 4GB of RAM or less, 32-bit operating systems, lower-speed hard disks (typically 5,400 RMP), and less-powerful graphics cards running at lower resolutions (generally topping out 800 vertical dots). Mobile workstations, while more expensive, can load in more memory, have much more powerful graphics systems and hard disks, and can run 64-bit operating systems. As you may suspect, all the power one gains in a mobile workstation means it won’t run very long on batteries, which means you won’t get much done during an airplane ride!

Following are some diagnostics you can use to make your own decisions about whether a particular user can get by with a laptop or mobile workstation.

  • If a user works with big models, renders a lot, or works with large batches of files, he or she is almost certainly not a good candidate for laptop-only computing because such users need faster disks, better graphics performance, and 64-bit operating system support to do the job well. I believe that someone who does CAD-intensive work all day, every day needs a high-performance workstation.
  • For users who travel often, work with big models only occasionally, and don't require high-end graphics capabilities, a mobile workstation or high-end laptop may very well be sufficient.

Some users, especially many CAD managers, might need both types of system since their jobs incorporate lots of CAD mixed with other tasks. I do a lot of my work on a dual-core Centrino-based laptop with 3GB of RAM running 32-bit Vista. I have no trouble running AutoCAD or Inventor (my two main CAD applications) or my Visual Studio development environment tools on the machine. For 80% of what I do, my laptop is fine and is my machine of choice, especially given my travel schedule. But when I need to do heavy-duty CAD I always head back to my desktop quad-core box, which has much more RAM and a higher-resolution monitor.

Laptops and mobile workstations have made significant strides and can serve more CAD users now than they could even a couple of years ago, but the desktop workstation isn't going away anytime soon. My advice is to keep your full-time CAD personnel on desktop machines, equip your traveling workforce with mobile workstations or high-end laptops, and be prepared to supply some traveling CAD heavy hitters (such as yourself, perhaps) with both.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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