(last updated 10 Jan 2017)
This has recently become the single most frequently asked question in the CAD courses here at Holts Academy. Given how quickly computer specifications and prices change, it’s a hard answer to keep up to date. While I can’t possibly hope to keep track of who’s offering the best deal on PC hardware, at least I can try to demystify some of the important terms to watch out for in a way everyone can understand, and in the process give people a guide of what they should be looking for in a CAD-ready PC.
The Minimum PC System Requirements for CAD Software
As of this article’s last update, based on the system recommendations of the most popular CAD programs currently used for jewellery, I present two lists: one is the minimum PC requirements to run CAD, the other is the ideal PC specifications to run CAD.
|Minimum CAD PC requirements||Ideal CAD PC Requirements||Best CAD PC Requirements|
|Processor||Intel I5 Processor or AMD Quad||Intel I7 Processor||Intel Xeon Processor|
|Operating System||Windows 7, 8, or 10 64-bit OS||Windows 7, 8, or 10 64-bit OS||Windows 10 64-bit OS|
|RAM Memory||6GB RAM||8+GB RAM||16+GB RAM|
|Graphics Card||Any nVidia or Radeon graphics card||nVidia GeForce graphics card
(or check software’s developer’s
|AMD FirePro series, nVidia Quadro series
or nVidia GeForce GTX series graphics card
|Hard Drive||SATA 1 HDD (7200 RPM) hard drive,
at least 500GB-1+TB of space
|SATA 1 HDD (7200 RPM) hard drive,
at least 500GB-1+TB of space
|SSD hard drive,
at least 256+GB of space
|Monitor||17″ Monitor (1280 x 1024 or better)||17″ Hi-Def Monitor (1920 x 1200)||17″ Hi-Def Monitor (1920 x 1200),
or 19″-24″ Hi-Def Monitor if desktop
What Do These Terms Mean?
Also called a microprocessor or “the chip” (after the old word microchip). It’s the “brains” of the computer, which does all the calculations and code-crunching which makes computer programs run. Two things determine it’s efficiency: speed (measured in megahertz MHz or gigahertz GHz), and number of parallel processes. Normally something in the name will indicate how many parallel processes the chip can handle, such as I5 indicates that it has a core processor and can handle 4 additional processes, or the Quad which has 4 parallel processes.
Stands for Random Access Memory. This is the short term memory of the machine, and controls how large a program or how many programs can be held in memory at once while the processor chugs away. RAM capacity plays a big part in the speed of the machine.
Note that there is a cap on how much RAM a process can use under 32-bit operating systems. This can cause a perfectly functional program to crash when working with too large of a file (such as one with hundreds of pave stones). To avoid this, it might be good to get a 64-bit operating system
Operating System (OS)
This is the most basic program of all, containing all the information and instructions the computer needs to be able to run. Technically, Mac and Windows are the two main species of Operating System. Generally, you want a relatively recent operating system if you want to avoid issues with the OS supporting your particular choice of CAD software.
32 Versus 64 Bit Operating Systems
As mentioned under the RAM section above, there was always going to be a limit to how large a program could be under old 32 bit operating systems. This was down to the largest numbers which could be stored in memory at a given time.
In order to fix this, they had to come up with 64 bit operating systems to raise the limit on these, and subsequently raise the limit on the size of the files which could be held in RAM at a given time. For this reason, I would nearly always recommend using a 64 bit operating system now for CAD, regardless of machine performance.
Using CAD on a Mac Desktop or Laptop
It’s a controversial decision by several of the current CAD software manufacturers to officially no longer support Macs for using their software, even with a parallel partition. That’s not to say you can’t run CAD on a Mac, it’s just for the moment your options are going to be somewhat more limited.
As of this article’s last update, the following programs come in their own versions specifically designed for Mac. Clicking on each one will take you to the respective link which holds the ideal Mac specifications:
However, if you are dead set on using a Mac for running PC programs, it is possible, although it takes a fair bit of technical know-how to install a parallel partition which can run a Windows operating system. The Pocket-Lint computer blog details how to go about how to install Windows on a Mac.
Stands for Hard Disk Drive. This is the long term memory of your PC and your storage for all your files. It also plays a part in determining the speed of the PC. If you run out of this, you won’t be able to save anything, and your machine will also slow down a bit as well.
In all honesty, you don’t need an enormous amount of this to run things in the short term. You could even get by with 250GB of hard disk space. But I generally recommend going bigger if you’re working on large files or planning on doing a lot of work on the machine.
Another option to help on space is to get two hard disks, one to handle your operating system and one dedicated only to storage. Go for it if you can afford it and the machine can handle it (some don’t have the space).
There is also a relatively new type of hard disk drive called Solid State Drives, or SSD. These are based on an entirely different technology than traditional hard drives, and benefit from significantly greater speeds. This explains why they cost so much more for less space than their more traditional cousins. Get one if you like and can afford it, but bear in mind you don’t want too little an amount of storage.
Graphics cards are kind of like the optical centre of the brain. It’s the part which handles all the visual calculations for what we see on screen, especially if we’re working in 3D. You may not realise it, but it takes an awful lot of mathmatics to make the 3D objects visually accurate on screen, especially if they’re moving.
As for the best specs for a graphics card: shopping for these is potentially the most confusing part of buying any PC. The problem is graphics card developers keep changing their rules for what the specifications on the cards actually mean. Indeed, the whole field of graphics card labelling can get so hard to understand, most of the review sites have stopped trusting the graphics card specs entirely and resorted to simply running benchmark tests on the new cards to compare their performance to older ones.
How do we navigate this? Well, fortunately we don’t have to worry about it too much for what we do. Every dedicated card put out by nVidia or Radeon is specifically designed for handling 3D for games, which means if you choose one of these, you’ll do just fine. If you’re looking for high performance though, each software manufacturer will have it’s own ideal recommendations as to what would be the best graphics cards to choose.
What Else Should I Watch Out For?
For one, if it’s a laptop, make sure you can actually lift the machine.
For another, you will need a 3-button mouse. There’s no escaping that with CAD. Trying to use CAD with a trackpad is a recipe for madness.
You can go with a refurbished PC if you want, but unless the original manufacturer goes out of its way to certify that it’s working well, there’s no telling what you’ll be getting.
Any Other Helpful Advice?
Gemvision did a nice video a while ago about how to buy a PC.
Bear in mind that, given the way technology moves, it’s unusual to own a computer of any sort longer than 6 years. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but it means that these tools are like cars in that they have a life cycle to them. It means no computer will last forever, but that’s not a bad thing though, as the technology takes leaps and bounds as it improves over time.
I hope that helps. Go get em!
(This article is one of my series of Frequently Asked Questions posts. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)