Frequently Asked Questions 8 – Minimum and Ideal PC Specs for CAD

(last updated 10 Jan 2017)

Buying a PC for CAD

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
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 Card

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.)

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  1. Hi, Thanks for posting this valuable advise. I just wanted to add a little about LapTops…1) As you mentioned, the dedicated graphics card is all important but for nearly all Win laptops this has become a dicey proposition. Since nearly all of them use some sort of “dual graphics” with switching between motherboard Intel graphics and NVIDIA or Radeon graphics, this scheme is known to cause all sorts of compatibility problems. The NVIDIA Optimus scheme seems to work a little more reliably, but really, it’s hit and miss between laptop brands. 2) For this reason we really encourage the use of desktop machines. For those who insist, Apple MacBook Pro seems to have it more together. The best thing you can do is to see if the retailer will let you install your CAD program to see if it will work or get a performance return guarantee.

    Bob Claborne

    • CADJewellerySkills

      Hi Bob. Nice to meet you. I’ve been working with your colleagues in Lyon and London for a few years now. 🙂

      Thanks for the excellent technical insights. I forgot to mention the general issues with dual graphics switching. Indeed, the first release of Matrix 7.0 would actually not work on the nVidia Optimus chipset at all. And I’ve previously had some serious display problems on my laptop with 3Design versions 6 and 7, which is a Dell XPS running a GeForce GT 550M.

      Fortunately, in both cases, from what I can see both you guys and Gemvision have been working hard to resolve these issues. While I can’t say the errors won’t come back, I haven’t seen a major display problem yet with current versions of 3Design, Matrix, or Rhino on any of my Windows 7 PC lab, or any Windows 8 machines purchased by students to date. If you like, I can give you the specs of what I’ve been finding to be error free so far, but I won’t list it all here for reasons it might get a bit tedious for others.

      I didn’t know laptop retailers would give performance return guarantees. If you can find one who does that, they would definitely be a keeper by sheer virtue of customer service alone.



      • Switching continues to be an issue but most systems can be configured to give good service. I have discovered that most larger box and online retailers (Best Buy & Dell to name just two) in N. America will cooperate if you let them know what you’re doing in advance. Then again, for us, MacBook Pro is an easy recommend.
        People also get the idea that you have to spend the big-bucks on graphics but $150 to $250 for a 1GB-2GB card usually does it nicely.



        • CADJewellerySkills

          Thanks again for the recommendations. I figured that graphics card didn’t have to be expensive to be effective.

          While you’re here, a couple of questions:

          1.) What behaviour would you consider to be a giveaway that the graphics card cannot handle the software?
          2.) Are there any indicators on graphics card descriptions which shoppers should be looking for when they buy a graphics card?



          • Hi Jack,

            1) Screen refresh will be slow, object rotation and movement will be slow and jerky, Strange behavior will be observed such as parts of the UI disappearing or parts of the object deleted will still appear to be there.

            2) Stick with the known labels NVIDIA and Radeon. Since these technologies are licensed to others, stick to manufacturers you’ve heard of (ASUS, MSI, Diamond, etc.) The plethora of models can be bewildering so I usually sort it out by price… Pay no more than $250 and get at least 1GB on the card. After that, it’s all about Gaming not CAD.


            3) The present crop of MacBook Pro includes only 1 model with dedicated (NVIDIA) graphics. Apple is transitioning to Intel Iris Graphics. Preliminary indication is that it will run CAD and is far superior to Intel 4000 but will be significantly inferior to dedicated graphics in just about every way except power consumption.



  2. Hello Jack.

    My friend recently bought 3Design CAD and want from me help with workstation for him. The main issue is for sure the graphic card. SW requirements for 3Design mentions FirePro W5100 – profi GK locally priced for 390€ thats the option nr.1

    Option nr.2 is no-profi GK GeForce GTX970 wich is similar price (gaming card indeed) but in case of brute power has far more performance for 380€.

    What would you pick ? Is the Firepro mandatory or the GeForce can do the render trick at least at the same level ?

    Thank You for respond. (sorry for my english)


    • CADJewellerySkills

      Hi Peter.

      Don’t worry. Your English is fine.

      Nowadays, when most computer software developers mention a specific graphics card, it’s meant more as a suggestion than a requirement. It’s rare for a piece of software to strictly require a graphics card anymore for most types of 3D software. The few that do are normally extremely high power systems (like CATIA).

      The reason why they still provide suggestions is because that’s the cards they found to give the best performance with the software.

      I think you’d be fine with either graphics card. I’m running neither of the cards you mentioned, and 3Design works fine on all the machines in my PC lab.

      The worst that can happen is that it won’t run as smoothly as it might have done on some configurations.



  3. Hi , so happy to have found this page
    I work on matrix 6 ( rhino 4 sr9 and t-splines plug in ) .
    I have an old Dell . Matrix is ok but tsplines very slow .
    I can’t afford matrix 8 for now , i want to keep what i have and buy a new laptop . What operating system should i choose ? my Dell is a windows xp ( May God have his soul , haha )
    Thank you

    • CADJewellerySkills

      Hi Silva:

      Interesting question. It’s not every day I get asked about older Matrix versions.

      From what I’ve been able to check here:

      I’ve found that you’ll need Windows XP or Windows 7.

      You’ll also want a good nVidia or Radeon Graphics Card, and at least 4GB of RAM.

      Besides that, I recommend a computer monitor at least 17″ so you don’t go blind staring at small text.

      Hope that helps.



      • Hi Jack
        Thank you so much for replying . Matrix 6 is great . I have upgraded Rhino4 to sr9 , so now i can run T splines .
        I bought a laptop 6 gb ram ( can add more ), nvidia geforce 930 and i am sooooooooo happy with it .
        Thank you
        Best regards

  4. I’m new to CAD. I’ve watched some tutorials, and seems to me more than one software is being used. What are the combinations that are most popular or absolutely necessary to do jewelry designs.
    I have come across these names, what are the pros and cons? Rhino, RhinoGold, Matrix and 3Design(?), Brazil, Clayoo, Arion, Relief Studio, Orca, Flamengo nXT, did I miss any 🙂 .
    I appreciate any help you can provide by email if you find it necessary or posting on this forum.

    • CADJewellerySkills

      Hi John:

      I’m happy to answer your questions. Indeed, I’ve already answered them both elsewhere in this same blog. Check the Frequently Asked Questions pages. FAQ 1 answers the differences and relative advantages of each of the software packages, and FAQ 4 answers which combinations of software work well together for specific tasks.

      There are a couple of software choices you mentioned (Orca and Arion for two) which I haven’t heard of before, at least in the realms of jewellery product design. But I do know there are several smaller companies currently jockeying for position in the low cost software market as we speak. As and when I get time to test them all, I’ll introduce an article comparing them.



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