Budget Workstations: Professional-Grade CAD Power for $2,000 or Less

4 Sep, 2012 By: Art Liddle

Cadalyst Labs Report: We examine four state-of-the-art desktop systems and find that 2D/3D CAD power is well within the reach of money-minded users.

It's been nearly four years since Cadalyst Labs conducted a roundup review of CAD workstations. For our previous roundup (November 2008), we focused on budget-friendly systems, setting a price ceiling of $2,500. Our stand-alone First Look reviews typically evaluate workstations costing much more: For the 13 systems we have reviewed during the past two years, the average cost was $3,772, with prices ranging from $2,060 to $5,673.

Featured Products

 Xi MTower PCIe
Xi Computer
 Dell Precision T1650
 HP Z220 CMT
 Lenovo ThinkStation S30

Click here for Comparison Table

We know that many Cadalyst readers spend considerably less than $3,772 on a new workstation. In fact, in a poll posted on in spring 2012, more than 40% of respondents indicated that their current workstation cost $2,000 or less. We also hear a lot lately from hardware developers about the increasing affordability of professional workstations — but what do you really get for a low price? We decided to find out, asking major workstation developers to configure the best 2D/3D CAD workstation possible for $2,000 or less.

Review Guidelines

We provided minimal guidelines to the vendors, knowing that a price point of only $2,000 would require them to make some tough choices. After all, it might be easy to configure the fastest workstation if you have lots of money to spend on a powerful processor, high-end graphics card, and maxed-out RAM. But what makes the cut when you are on a tight budget? We wanted to know what each workstation vendor would choose to support a 2D/3D CAD user on a budget.

Our requirements included the following:

  • desktop (not mobile) system;
  • certified for AutoCAD and optimized for full 2D functionality, with support for light 3D modeling;
  • loaded with Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit;
  • standard warranty should fully cover an overclocked processor, if applicable;
  • available for purchase as configured and as priced through the fall of 2012; and
  • priced at $2,000 or less (not including a monitor or shipping charges).

Four companies submitted systems according to our criteria. Our checklist for evaluating the workstations emphasized value (price vs. performance); configuration (expandability, storage, power supply, and the like); warranty; and return policy.

Budget Workstation Report Card

Test Procedures

For this workstation roundup (as we informed the vendors when we invited their participation), we limited our official performance testing to AutoCAD 2012 running the Cadalyst c2012 v5.4 Benchmark Test at a resolution of 1,280 x 1,024 with 32-bit color. As usual, we enabled hardware acceleration for AutoCAD and turned off vertical sync for the graphics card. We did all testing using AutoCAD's integrated graphics driver, because no graphics card vendor currently supports AutoCAD 2012 with an enhanced driver.

For those unfamiliar with our benchmark, c2012 reports a series of index numbers for the following categories: total index (average of the other four indexes); 3D index (rotates 3D models using four of AutoCAD's standard rendering functions); 2D index (runs a series of commands for creating, modifying, and viewing assorted 2D entities); disk index (reads and writes to the hard drive multiple times using several different I/O functions); and CPU index (loops through a series of simple calculations thousands of times).

The index numbers recorded by the test represent how many times faster the test workstation is compared to the base workstation, which was a 1995 ALR Pentium Pro. Yes, the roots of the c2012 benchmark stretch back more than 17 years! Benchmark test results are most helpful when compared with those of other systems — for example, you could compare your current system's performance to that of the systems in this roundup to see how your machine stacks up against state-of-the-art, budget-priced models.

Budget Workstation Benchmark Results

Unofficially, we also ran our usual ancillary tests on each workstation: SPECviewperf v11.0 and, for the three work-stations that included an NVIDIA graphics card, AutoCAD 2011, Cadalyst c2011, and NVIDIA's performance driver. We are not publishing these results, but we added them to our internal database for future reference. For the record, the data from these tests confirmed the results of our Cadalyst c2012 benchmark tests.

In addition, we took this opportunity to test-drive CINEBENCH, which taps multicore processing to gauge OpenGL rendering performance. Developed by Maxon and based on the company's CINEMA 4D animation software, the test incorporates a photorealistic animation of a car racing through city streets. We are evaluating CINEBENCH for possible use in future workstation reviews.

When it was all said and done, one thing was clear: Professional workstation power is indeed within reach of users on a $2,000 budget. Any of the workstations presented here would be a good choice for someone running AutoCAD or a similar solution. Each system has its strengths and minor weaknesses. None is perfect, but all offer good value.

Xi MTower PCIe
@Xi Computers

Highly RecommendedIt should come as no surprise to our regular readers that @Xi Computer earned top marks — by a large margin — for the performance of its Xi MTower PCIe workstation. However, to afford its two performance-enhancing options — an overclocked CPU and a Corsair solid-state SATA-3 hard drive (with 0.3-ms seek time) — and stay below the $2,000 price ceiling for this roundup, the company had to make a tradeoff: Hard drive storage was limited to 120 GB.


System configuration. The Xi MTower PCIe is built around the Asus P8Z77-M PRO motherboard, which is ideally suited for overclocking the Intel i5-3570K CPU (four cores, four threads) to 4.6 GHz from the standard 3.4 GHz.

Xi MTower PCIeA Corsair sealed water-cooling system, with a 4.75" dedicated fan, dissipates the extra heat generated by this processor-on-steroids. In addition, the tower case, which measures 8.75" x 18.75" x 19.25" (WxHxD), provides generous ventilation on five sides. However, this creates a direct path for internal sounds to leak, producing a slight but discernible noise from beneath the desk.

After accommodating the graphics card, the Asus motherboard has three free expansion slots: two PCIe 2.0 x 16 slots and one PCIe 2.0 x 1 slot. Due to our price ceiling, @Xi Computer could not include its standard choice of the mid-to-high–range NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics card — so it did the next best thing and included a Quadro 2000. This card, which includes 1 GB of DDR5 memory, provides one dual-link DVI-I port, two DisplayPort connections, and a 3D stereo jack. It supports two monitors simultaneously at a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 with 32-bit color.

Xi MTower PCIe
The blazingly fast Xi MTower PCIe workstation keeps its cool thanks to ample ventilation, numerous fans, and a sealed water radiator system.
The Xi MTower PCIe provides a tremendous amount of expansion space for drives, with four 5.25" (three free) external drive bays as well as six 3.5" (five free) and two 2.5" (both free) internal bays. As for connectivity, more options are available than anyone should ever need. The front panel includes two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and headphone and microphone jacks. The rear panel includes four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA ports, one network connection, an S/PDIF port, another pair of headphone and microphone jacks, and an old-fashioned PS-2 port.

Completing the configuration are 8 GB of 1,866-MHz DDR3 non-ECC (error-correcting code) memory (two 4-GB DIMMs, each with a large Corsair heat-spread); an extremely generous 850-watt Corsair Ultra-Quiet power supply (minimum 80% efficiency); a DVD+RW/DL+/-R/CD-RW 18X optical drive; a Logitech Deluxe Windows keyboard; and a Logitech optical wheel mouse.

Test results. Using our current testing configuration of AutoCAD 2012 with the c2012 benchmark and Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit operating system, @Xi's work-station proved to be 27–35% faster than the competition, as measured by the overall index. That substantial edge in performance is amazing, and most of it is attributable to the overclocked processor. The full set of c2012 scores were as follows: total index of 614, 3D graphics index of 1,239, 2D graphics index of 517, disk index of 342, and CPU index of 360.

Cost, warranty, and tech support. The Xi MTower PCIe, as configured for this review, costs $1,990. This price includes a three-year hardware warranty with express advance parts replacement, parts and labor, and return shipping costs — and @Xi Computer includes a 30-day money-back guarantee (excluding software), the best of any in this review. Tech support is free for the lifetime of the system.

The Xi MTower PCIe shines in this roundup of systems costing less than $2,000. It has more than enough power to do serious 2D work as well as entry- to mid-level 3D modeling. It definitely has expansion capacity to spare, should you need to upgrade at a later date. An additional 500 GB of hard drive space can be had for $89.

@Xi Computer's 25 years of experience in the CAD market is obvious in the engineering and manufacture of its workstations. The Xi MTower PCIe delivers superb performance for the price — it's an exceptional value. Highly Recommended.

Dell Precision T1650

Dell markets its Precision T1650 workstation as a "powerful and cost-effective entry-level workstation." After reviewing the system submitted for this roundup, we have to agree. In addition, the Dell Precision T1650 was unique in two areas, compared to the competition: choice of graphics card and hard drive configuration.

Dell Precision T1650System configuration. Based on one of Dell's proprietary motherboards, the Dell Precision T1650 included Intel's Core i7-3770 CPU (four cores, eight threads) running at 3.4 GHz. For single-core operations, the internal CPU clock jumps to 3.9 GHz. The system has four expansion slots: two PCIe 2.0 x 16 slots (one filled with the graphics card), one PCIe 2.0 x 1 slot, and one PCI 32 slot. A pair of 4-GB memory chips (DDR3, 1,600 MHz, non-ECC [error-correcting code]) fills two of the four available DIMM slots. (Note: The Core i7 family of processors does not support ECC memory.)

The Dell Precision T1650's tower case provides one-handed access for quick and easy upgrades. It is relatively small — the largest workstation in our roundup is nearly twice its size. At 7" x 14.25" x 17" (WxHxD), it should fit just about anywhere. There are four drive bays, with one of the two 5.25" external bays free. The front panel provides two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and speaker and headphone jacks. At the rear there are two USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, one network connection, another pair of headphone and microphone jacks, a pair of old-fashioned PS-2 ports, and connectors for the integrated graphics.

For the graphics system, Dell chose the AMD FirePro V4900 — the only non-NVIDIA card in the roundup. This 75-watt card includes 1 GB of GDDR5 128-bit memory, along with one dual-link DVI and two DisplayPort connections. It supports as many as three displays using AMD Eyefinity technology, at a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 with 30-bit color.

Dell Precision T1650
The Dell Precision T1650 offers good performance and a great price in a small tower case that is whisper-quiet.
Dell was the only vendor to send us a system configured with RAID 0 technology using a pair of 500-GB SATA 7,200-rpm striped drives. RAID 0 increases read/write performance of file operations, and sure enough, the Dell Precision T1650's disk index score on our benchmark was 7–25% faster than that of the other two systems configured with non–solid-state drives. However, there is a price to pay for the added performance: You basically double your chances of losing data, because if either drive goes bad, all files are lost. If you use RAID 0, be sure to back up data often.

The Dell outfitted the Precision T1650 with a 320-watt power supply — the least powerful in this roundup. This certainly meets the requirements for the given configuration, but it may not meet the demands of upgrades you might need later. Another sacrifice for price: This configuration included a 16X DVD-ROM drive. Most users will likely spend the additional $40 to upgrade to a 16X DVD+/-RW drive that can read and write. The design and craftsmanship of the Dell Precision T1650 is top-notch. Of particular note is its quiet operation — despite the fact that there are four fans packed inside this unit.

Test results. Using our standard configuration of AutoCAD 2012 running the c2012 benchmark on the Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit operating system, the Precision T1650 proved to be a top performer on the 2D and disk portions of our benchmark, compared to the other two nonoverclocked systems, thanks to its AMD FirePro V4900 graphics card and the RAID 0 configuration of its hard drives. The system's full set of c2012 scores were as follows: total index of 463, 3D graphics index of 837, 2D graphics index of 438, disk index of 284, and CPU index of 295.

Cost, warranty, and tech support. Dell's warranty includes three years of basic hardware service and next–business day, limited on-site service after remote diagnosis. Technical support is available during local business hours. Dell accepts returns within 30 days, less shipping costs and, unless the product is defective, a restocking fee of as much as 15% of the purchase price.

Although not the fastest system reviewed, the Dell Precision T1650 is more than fast enough for our targeted 2D/3D CAD users. And, priced at only $1,889, it is a good value. Combine that with the backing of an established company such as Dell, and you have a winner. Dell reports that special sale pricing is always offered on the T1650. As this article went to press, a $265 discount was available on the Dell web site.


It has been almost a year since we reviewed one of HP's entry-level convertible mini-tower workstations, the HP Z210 CMT, so named because you can configure the unit to lie flat or stand tall by rotating the optical drive cages 90°. We liked what we saw back then, and the updated version reviewed here, the HP Z220 CMT, is even better.

HP Z220 CMTSystem configuration. Built around an HP-designed motherboard, the Z220 CMT is powered by an Intel 3.4-GHz Xeon E3-1245v2 processor (four cores, eight threads), which can jump to 3.8 GHz for single-core functions. Unlike the Intel Core family of processors (designated as i5-xxxx and i7-xxxx), Xeon processors support ECC (error-correcting code) memory, which provides additional protection against random errors. HP took advantage of this feature, equipping the Z220 CMT with two 4-GB DDR3 1,600-MHz ECC memory modules. That leaves two empty DIMM sockets, which support a maximum of 8 GB each.

Beyond the CPU and memory, the motherboard provides a whopping seven expansion slots (six free): one PCIe 3.0 x 16 slot (filled with the graphics card), one PCIe 2.0 x 16 slot, one PCIe 2.0 x 8 slot, two PCIe 2.0 x 1 slots, and two PCI 32 slots. As for drive space, the Z220 CMT has three 5.25" external drive bays (two occupied), and three 3.5" internal drive bays (one filled).

The Z220 CMT sports a traditional-looking black case measuring 7" x 17.6" x 17.5" (WxHxD) and allows one-handed access for quick entry. The front face includes two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, one IEEE 1394a port, headphone and microphone jacks, and a 22-in-1 media card reader. The rear panel includes two USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, one network connection, three audio jacks, and a pair of PS-2 ports.

The HP Z220 CMT's convertible case lets you quickly configure the system as an upright tower or a flat desktop workstation.
For this review, HP chose its mid-range graphics card option for the Z220 family of work-stations: the NVIDIA Quadro 2000 (the Z220 CMT can support up to a Quadro 4000). This mid-range 3D card includes 1-GB GDDR5 (128-bit) memory and supports a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600 with 32-bit color. It features one dual-link DVI-I port, two DisplayPort connections, and a 3D stereo jack. It can operate two monitors simultaneously.

Other options on the Z220 CMT include a 1.0-TB SATA (7,200-rpm; 6 GB per second, 64-MB cache) hard drive, a 16X DVD+/-RW dual-layer SATA optical drive, and a standard HP USB keyboard and USB optical three-button mouse. The system is powered by a 400-watt (90% energy efficient) power supply and is designed to reduce total energy consumption, meeting the Energy Star 5.0 TEC specifications.

The HP Z220 CMT is a well-built system, a reflection of HP's years of workstation design and engineering experience. Of course, we must mention HP's Performance Advisor software. This utility, which ships with all HP workstations, takes the guesswork out of managing your system. It gives you real-time information about anything of consequence inside the case. It helps you optimize, customize, and troubleshoot your hardware and related driver software.

Test results. For performance testing, we used our standard configuration of AutoCAD 2012 running the c2012 benchmark on Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. Although its total index score was a couple of percentage points off the average for the three nonoverclocked systems in our roundup, the Z220 CMT did record the top CPU index among this same group. Its full set of c2012 scores were as follows: total index of 456, 3D graphics index of 887, 2D graphics index of 400, disk index of 226, and CPU index of 310.

Cost, warranty, and tech support. The price of the Z220 CMT, as configured for this review, is $1,925 when purchased through HP's Small & Medium Business Online Store using the eCoupon code WKS12. HP assures us that this discount code will be valid at least through the end of 2012. The Z220 CMT is backed by HP's limited three-year warranty for parts and labor, with Monday–Friday, 8 a.m.–5 p.m., next–business day, on-site service and 24/7 phone support. Its 90-day return policy covers only defective products — at no charge to the customer. The HP Z220 CMT workstation is fully loaded with everything you need for serious CAD work; it offers good performance and lots of room for expansion, all at an affordable price.

Lenovo ThinkStation S30

Highly RecommendedWe haven't reviewed a Lenovo workstation since our last roundup four years ago, when we looked at the ThinkStation S10. It is interesting to note that we listed the price of that system as $1,896 — almost the same cost as the ThinkStation S30 reviewed here. However, today's ThinkStation S30 is literally twice the computer — offering double the memory, hard drive storage, and speed as the S10 — for the same price. Now, that's what we call progress!

System configuration. At the heart of the Lenovo-built motherboard sits an Intel 3.6-GHz Xeon E5-1620 processor (four cores, eight threads), which has a 3.8-GHz Turbo mode for single-core operation. Taking advantage of the Xeon's support for ECC (error-correcting code) memory, the ThinkStation S30 includes two 4-GB UDIMM ECC PC3-10600 (1,333-MHz) memory modules. This leaves six sockets free for expansion, because there are eight DIMM sockets provided. Yes, this system supports up to 64 GB of memory — tops among the models in this roundup.

Lenovo ThinkStation S30An NVIDIA Quadro 2000 graphics card powers the ThinkStation S30 graphics subsystem. This familiar mid-range option comes loaded with 1 GB of DDR5 memory and provides two dual-link DVI-I ports and a 3D stereo jack. It can drive two monitors simultaneously with a maximum resolution of 2,560 x 1,600, with 32-bit color. As for expansion slots, there are three PCIe 3.0 x 16 slots (one taken by the Quadro 2000), one PCIe 2.0 x 4 slot, and one PCI 32/32 slot.

The ThinkStation S30 arrived in a handsome, well-engineered tower case measuring 6.75" x 16.6" x 18.5" (WxHxD). On the inside, there is plenty of room for hard drives, with two 5.25" external drive bays (one free), and four 3.5" internal bays (two free). The same goes for connectivity on the outside, where there are two USB 3.0 ports (rear), ten USB 2.0 ports (two front, eight rear), a 25-in-1 media card reader (front), one network connection (rear), and assorted audio jacks (front and rear).

Lenovo ThinkStation S30
Lenovo's thoughtfully configured ThinkStation S30 boasts excellent engineering, lots of room for expansion, and good performance.
The case incorporates three nice features not found on the other models in this roundup: an integrated handle that supports easy one-handed lifting; illuminated symbols on the front panel for easy identification; and a quick-access cover latch, located on the side panel, that is lockable (two keys included).

With all this room available for upgrades, it's a good thing the ThinkStation S30 has a generous 610-watt (80 Plus Gold) power supply. The finishing touches for our review unit included a pair of 500-GB SATA 7,200-rpm hard drives, 16X DVD+/-RW optical drive, full-size keyboard, and optical wheel mouse. As for its noise output, well, the ThinkStation S30 was nearly silent during operation — so much so that one had to place an ear against the case to verify that the system made any noise at all.

Test results. The ThinkStation S30 proved to be the fastest system among the three review units that did not overclock the processor. Per our standards, we gauged performance running the c2012 benchmark in AutoCAD 2012 on Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. The Think-Station S30 workstation's c2012 scores were as follows: total index of 483, 3D graphics index of 987, 2D graphics index of 388, disk index of 265, and CPU index of 291.

Cost, warranty, and tech support. As configured for this review, the price of the ThinkStation S30 workstation is $1,863 when purchased through Lenovo partner CDW. This price includes Lenovo's standard limited warranty, which covers parts and labor for three years with limited on-site coverage; technical support is available during regular business hours. (You might consider upgrading to the Priority Support plan, which adds Monday–Friday, 8 a.m.–5 p.m., next–business day, on-site service, for an additional $59.) Lenovo accepts returns within 30 days, subject to a 15% restocking fee; the customer pays for return shipping.

Given its top-notch engineering, good price-to-performance value, connectivity options, and ample capacity for expansion, the ThinkStation S30 workstation earns our highest rating. Highly Recommended.

About the Author: Art Liddle

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